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Expert blog: Giving clues to children with Developmental Language Disorder can help to improve spelling accuracy

Children with developmental language disorder often struggle with reading and writing, Dr Gareth Williams and Dr Rebecca Larkin from the School of Social Sciences explain how the use of clues can help them to spell more accurately.

School teacher helping young children in a classroom to write
Some children face considerable difficulty in spelling, even with dedicated support from teachers and speech and language therapists

Whether it’s through bedtime stories, newspapers around the house, or even subtitles on TV, children’s familiarity with visual language often starts before formal schooling. Theories of spelling development suggest that young children start their learning journey by drawing on visual images of words. They then tie that in with phonics they learn in school, to bear on solving the problem of spelling.

But this requires coordinating a complex collection of knowledge and skills. One challenge young writers face, for example, is how to convert each spoken word in their minds to a written form, using standard English spelling. We refer to this ‘written form’ as orthography, and it’s essential that this orthographic knowledge works with children’s speech-sound knowledge to come together as learning to spell. Working with the foundations in phonics, orthographic knowledge also opens the door to more complex words, and a rich variety of vocabulary that transforms writing.

However, some children face considerable difficulty in spelling, even with all the effort and technique teachers and speech and language therapists employ to foster these skills. Our research team at Nottingham Trent University has worked with a group of children with developmental language disorder (DLD), which affects around seven per cent of school-aged children. DLD can cause a mixture of receptive and productive language difficulties, typically from early childhood, and also often struggle with reading and writing.

Rebecca Larkin
Dr Rebecca Larkin

English in particular can be tricky for young writers who are trying to connect visual language with the sounds they hear. English conventions reflect the way it has borrowed from other languages throughout history, and so outside a small pool of words that map speech sounds closely, there are many instances where the letter patterns drift away from regular speech sound usage. For example, “plough” instead of “plow” or “yacht” instead of “yot”. As far as we can tell, writers of all languages gain an orthographic knowledge, however English writers take on a more complicated journey than their peers learning to write in Finnish, Spanish, or Welsh, for instance, as these languages have conventions for spelling that match the spoken word more closely.

Essentially, the journey to mastery in English has to account for a wide variation in how letter combinations can match speech sounds.

For our most recent paper investigating DLD, over 100 children took part in a series of carefully designed activities where we looked at their spelling skills and orthographic knowledge. Our aim was to investigate how children with DLD compared to their peers without DLD and to look at this in terms of chronological age and language age. We can use standardised measures to find out a child’s spoken and receptive language age. Doing this helps us to understand more about children with DLD, who often have a language age lower than their chronological age. Children with DLD, who were around ten years of age, took part.

Our team also worked with schools to match each child with DLD to a typically developing child with a similar chronological age and a child with a similar language age. With two comparison groups, we could look at how children with DLD performed on the activities relative to typical peers who have had similar duration in school and to peers who have had less school experience but are at a similar language level.

An interesting point to consider, though, is that it’s possible there are two forms of orthographic knowledge: general and specific. Learners build long-term memories of the general rules that make up a written language, which then help them make attempts at words that are unfamiliar. In contrast, word-specific orthographic knowledge includes representations of each individual word as they are written.

Gareth Williams
Dr Gareth Williams

To measure both forms of orthographic knowledge, we drew on the work of earlier researchers who had studied this form of knowledge in both children and adults. For general orthographic knowledge, we asked children to spot the difference between two pseudowords where one used a more common orthographic structure (“zame” / “zaym”). Pseudowords are not actually present in the language but follow its rules. They are useful because participants are unlikely to have memory representations for these words.

For specific orthographic knowledge, we showed children a real word and an orthographically similar pseudoword (“ghost” / “goast”), then asked them to spot the real word. We were also interested to see whether giving children clue words, which hint at the orthography of the word we were asking them to spell, would help improve accuracy. We used real words as our clues, and pseudowords for our spelling targets. We also included a comparison activity where children only heard the pseudoword targets without being presented with any clues.

Clue words have a long history in literacy research, and it is likely that long-term memory is structured so as to be very closely connected to associated information. For example, if a child sees the clue word, ‘have’ and hears the pseudoword ‘tave’, they may have a greater chance at spelling the pseudoword more consistently with standard English spelling. Considering the way spelling skills develop, we measured attempts in terms of the development of spelling features, rather than correct and incorrect spellings. An attempt that closely matched the target pseudoword was awarded full points, whereas those that were less representative of the target word but featured similar phonemes, were given lower scores.

We found that, in orthographic knowledge, the three groups of children had similar levels of general knowledge. However, the children with DLD had specific knowledge scores that were significantly lower than their chronological age-matched peers but in line with the children who were matched for language age. In the clue word activity, both groups of children without DLD improved in their spelling scores, compared to the activity where they made a spelling attempt after only hearing the pseudoword target. Notably, the children with DLD significantly improved as well.

Although we found that children with DLD have difficulties in spelling, our findings show they bring to spelling activities the foundations in written language form through general orthographic knowledge. We can build on this knowledge when designing future interventions. Finding that children with DLD are responsive to clue words shows that this approach could be a way to support these children on their journey from general to specific orthographic knowledge.

Working with teachers and speech and language therapists, we are exploring if this approach could form the basis of a structured intervention programme. In doing so, we can help children with DLD unlock a greater range of words to use in their writing. It might also be something that we can consider in teaching practice, when thinking about the orthographic similarities and differences in words we introduce to children. It also helps us to reflect on whether giving feedback with orthography in mind might help children learn more from their spelling attempts.

Dr Rebecca Larkin, Deputy Head of Psychology and Dr Gareth Williams, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences

Published on 27 February 2023
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences